Really Big Show - THE BIRTH OF TELEVISION - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


Chapter 9. “Really Big Show”

IT WAS UNSEASONABLY WARM IN THE EARLY MORNING of June 20, 1948 as Marlo Lewis parked his car in the alley behind the Maxine Elliot Theater. Tonight was his and Ed’s television debut, yet today was the first day he had access to the theater. There was a lot to do and not much time to do it. But when he opened the large iron backdoor, what he found was alarming.

The stage manager, looking exhausted, gave Lewis a progress report: “Marlo, you’re going to have a shit-hemorrhage.” Along with several stagehands and technicians, he had been up all night, hacking and sawing and installing equipment in a mad sprint to finish the renovation. It was unclear whether the theater could be readied for tonight’s broadcast. And even if it were, it seemed doubtful the production would appear more professional than a high school play.

Lewis had worked with a CBS set designer to create a stage backdrop, a crudely painted wooden and canvas structure depicting the New York skyline topped with puffy white clouds. A network press release described it, with great imagination, as “a roof garden with the Manhattan skyline silhouetted against the starlit sky.” Constructed in a CBS warehouse across town, the backdrop had been too big to get through the doors of the Maxine Elliot, forcing the carpenters to take it apart. Yet when they stitched it back together they realized it was too large for the stage. The stagehands and carpenters had worked into the early morning hours to remake and position the structure so that it curved enough to fit. But the resulting backdrop left gaps on both sides of the stage, revealing all the detritus piled backstage.

Three cameramen, attempting to station their equipment on the stage’s edge, discovered that their cameras couldn’t handle the theater’s bright lights. The only solution was to turn off most of the stage lights and set up a dynabeam spotlight to direct light as needed. But this required scrambling to find both a dynabeam and someone who knew how to use it. Fortunately, the theater’s head stagehand (who maintained a peephole between his office and the ladies’ restroom) knew of a veteran spotlight operator, who rented a dynabeam and hurriedly hauled it to the theater.

Ray Bloch and his fourteen-piece orchestra arrived late morning, learning they were to be installed in a storage area backstage. With no line of sight to the stage, the conductor would need to listen to commands over his headphones. As Bloch began rehearsing, a fire department supervisor showed up to inspect the newly renovated facility, issuing the bandleader a $50 fine for smoking his pipe in the theater. After his inspection, the supervisor gave Lewis the bad news: the theater contained so many violations of the fire code that he couldn’t allow it to host a performance. That evening’s show would have to be canceled. Unsure of what to do, Lewis called Sullivan at home, where he was hastily finishing his column.

Ed didn’t hesitate. “I’ve done plenty of benefits for those boys and the Chief’s a good friend of mine,” he told Marlo. Ed placed a quick call and worked out a compromise: the fire department would station men with extinguishers around the backstage area during the performance, and any foliage would be sprayed prior to broadcast. (When the foliage around the set was sprayed, the resultant chemical bath gave some of the performers headaches that afternoon.) Ed asked how everything else was, and Marlo, not wanting to spook him, told him everything was fine.

When Ed arrived that afternoon he made a bravura entrance, saying hello and shaking hands with everyone, the performers as well as the technicians and stagehands. The morale of the cast and crew seemed to brighten as he announced that tonight would be a “blockbuster of a show.” Then, as he had for countless Loew’s State shows, he took a seat on a stool near stage right and began working out details with a pad and pencil: who would appear when, how long they would be given, what material they would perform, and when to introduce the celebrities in the audience. He had the performers run through the program in its entirety, then directed a round of changes, making adjustments to timing and entrances. After watching the comedy duo Jim Kirkwood and Lee Goodman, Ed felt their cerebral routine didn’t stand up next to the high-voltage vibrancy of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. He told them to edit their act down to three minutes; the duo felt they couldn’t do that, so he cut them altogether.

When the rehearsal concluded, Sullivan and the performers gathered onstage for a photo, the performers along the back row and the June Taylor dancers—who would shimmy in a short nightclub number to introduce Ed—kneeling in plumed costumes up front. As the camera flashed, Jerry Lewis appeared bored, staring off to his left in mid yawn. Dean Martin, oblivious to the photographer’s efforts, chatted with Marlo Lewis’ younger sister, who would sing that night. Ed, looking dapper in a double-breasted jacket, stared down and to his right, unsmiling, intent, lost in thought.

The preparation done, there was nothing to do but wait; this was live television and the broadcast wasn’t until 9:30 P.M. (The show soon moved to 8 P.M.) These hours of waiting were excruciating for Ed. He had wanted this for most of his adult life, craving this kind of an opportunity since he made his first film in New York in 1932. Yet his past gave him little encouragement. He was certainly a veteran showman, having produced his first variety revue some fifteen years back, and having lived and breathed show business since then. But each of his attempts on the airwaves had failed, miserably so; five radio shows launched, five short-lived radio shows canceled. A critic had described his one major onscreen effort, in Big Town Czar, as “unconvincing”—and he had been playing himself. The note that he wrote to Betty and Sylvia described how he felt in the days before the show—“anxious and distracted”—yet now, waiting in his tiny dressing room upstairs at the Maxine Elliot, that anxiety coalesced into a gut-churning terror.

A half hour before the broadcast, Marlo Lewis walked into Sullivan’s dressing room and was horrified by what he saw. Ed’s face was a colorless white and his eyes were glazed over. A plastic tube hung from his mouth, attached to a small rubber syringe he held in his hand; the apparatus was directed into the dressing room sink. The two men’s eyes met in the dressing room mirror, and Ed downplayed the unusual scene. “It’s nothing,” he said, his speech garbled, “I’m just pumping my stomach—acid’s too high, ulcer’s killing me.” He motioned Marlo to take a seat while he finished the procedure, which took a few minutes longer. Ed swallowed a large dose of Belladonna, a commonly prescribed ulcer medication. (Belladonna can cause blurry vision, which Lewis felt contributed to Ed’s mangled introductions—he may have had a hard time reading cue cards; the drug can also result in drowsiness and mental confusion, possibly adding to the host’s difficulties onstage; and in older adults it can cause memory loss, which Ed suffered greatly from in his later years.) Within a few minutes the emcee seemed to recover partially from his ulcer attack, though his hands continued to shake in jittery tremors. Marlo, uneasy and wanting to reassure Ed, said only that everything would be great, then informed him of the camera cue before leaving him alone.

Precisely at 9:30 P.M., Ray Bloch struck up a drumroll, and deep-timbered announcer Art Hannes intoned: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Columbia Broadcast System is proud to present its star-studded revue, the Toast of the Town, with the nationally known newspaper columnist … Ed Sullivan!” No tape of that first show exists, but by all accounts it went well. A standing room-only audience crammed the Maxine Elliot, clapping as six showgirls pranced onstage to introduce Ed. True to his newsman’s formula, he presented his splashiest attraction first: the studio audience screamed with laughter as Jerry Lewis played the antic high-energy clown to Dean Martin’s suave man-about-town. After Ed interviewed Rodgers and Hammerstein about their 1943 hit Oklahoma! and their upcoming production, South Pacific, they received an affectionate ovation; then Kathryn Lee, a ballerina in the duo’s show Allegro, pirouetted and twirled around the onstage piano. Pianist Eugene List rendered Chopin, fireman John Kokoman crooned, and Monica Lewis jazzed up a nightclub number, forgetting the microphone hidden in her bouquet and sending it skidding across the stage with a hand gesture. Ed, in a set that looked like a boxing ring’s corner, chatted with fight referee Ruby Goldstein about the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Walcott title bout. As he introduced the acts and spoke with some of them, he fidgeted uneasily, always looking away from the camera, his hands visibly shaking. (He may have developed his signature arms-crossed pose—unusual for an emcee—to hide his trembling hands.) CBS, in its haste to get the show on the air, hadn’t found a sponsor, so any commercial breaks were for the network itself.

The size of the television audience for this first broadcast is unknown. The television networks at that time were capable of broadcasting only to cities in the eastern part of the country, in an area running from Richmond to Boston. Not until January 1949 did a coaxial cable connect these cities with a Midwestern area that extended to Chicago, and coast-to-coast broadcasting didn’t begin until September 1951. Before 1951, viewers in nonconnected cities watched Toast of the Town on kinescope, which was a grainy copy shot directly from the television screen, sent from station to station by mail. (As Mike Dann, an NBC programming executive in the 1950s, recalled: “When somebody asked ‘How’d the show go last night?’ you said, ‘Just great, it came out clear—you could see it.’ ”) At the time of the show’s first broadcast in June 1948, there were some five hundred thousand televisions in the United States. Given that ratings reports soon showed Sullivan handily winning his time slot, most of the TVs on the east coast were likely tuned to CBS that evening; assuming three to four viewers per set, perhaps approximately a million viewers watched.

Three days after its debut, a review in Variety praised Toast of the Town, but said that it suffered by comparison to Berle’s Texaco Theater, which had also just debuted. Berle “brought to his emcee role one of the best showmanship lifts yet given a television show,” the trade publication opined, concluding that “Vaudeo—the adaptation of old-time vaudeville into the new video medium—came of age last Tuesday night in a performance that may well be remembered as a milestone in television.” Variety reported that Berle’s NBC show benefited from an enviable Tuesday night time slot and a budget of $10,000 per show. As for Toast of the Town, the reviewer wrote, “With a top talent array, the new CBS offering couldn’t help but be entertaining.… It lacked [the] sparkle of the Texaco show, chiefly because Sullivan, as an emcee, is a good newspaper columnist. He’s affable enough and certainly has enough showbiz knowhow to lend authority to his job, but he doesn’t have the comedy touch of Milton Berle.”

The second Sunday’s Toast of the Town followed the formula of the first. To headline, Ed booked The Ink Spots, a black rhythm and blues vocal quartet who had just ended a long engagement at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and whose hit “If I Didn’t Care” currently backed a Lucky Strike cigarettes radio ad. Also appearing were Irving Berlin, preceded by a song-and-dance routine featuring his songs; famed ballroom dance team Raye and Naldi (Mary Raye had danced with screen idol Rudolph Valentino in 1925’s smoldering Cobra); singing policeman Peter Hayes; big band songstress Nan Wynn; and ventriloquist Paul Winchell with his hand-carved dummy Jerry Mahoney.

Like the debut evening, this program stretched the boundaries of a late 1940s variety show beyond recognition. On no local New York stage would the Ink Spots have appeared with Irving Berlin—presenting a black R&B group with the “White Christmas” composer was counterintuitive, even daring; pairing a big band vocalist like Nan Wynn with a singing cop would have confounded a local audience. On the other hand, Sullivan often booked dancers Raye and Naldi along with a ventriloquist at Loew’s State, so the evening’s bill presented comforting combinations even as it stretched the genre. His show was often called vaudeville, and it did resemble this venerable form, but the evening veered sharply from traditional vaudeville as Sullivan felt his way toward reaching a television audience.

Ventriloquist Paul Winchell recalled the technical difficulties of mounting that evening’s show. During rehearsal, Ed, from the control room, told Winchell that his dummy’s voice was too soft. To compensate, the ventriloquist spoke Jerry Mahoney’s part louder, yet it still didn’t project enough, so he tried it even louder. But, still, Ed told him the dummy’s voice wasn’t coming through in the control room. “I panicked,” Winchell said. “I became convinced that my aspirations for this new medium were totally over.” He began to suspect that for some reason ventriloquism couldn’t be broadcast on television. Finally, Winchell looked up and saw that every time he spoke Jerry Mahoney’s part, the boom operator moved the microphone toward the dummy—which of course moved the microphone away from the real sound source. In other words, the production crew was pretty green.

His panic about the microphone snafu was part of an almost debilitating stage fright. “What I remember most was how scared I was,” Winchell said. Although he had played vaudeville and radio for years, making his television debut felt like jumping off the end of the earth. Ed, sensing the ventriloquist’s nerves, attempted to reassure him. “Look, there’s nothing different about it, don’t pay attention to the cameras,” Winchell recalled Ed saying. “You just do your routine and don’t worry about it. This is not a big bugaboo, we’ll do the shots—you won’t even know it.” Certainly there was an irony to the showman who was himself knock-kneed in front of the camera telling one of his performers to relax. As the ventriloquist recalled from working with Sullivan throughout the 1950s, Ed was as scared as he was.

Despite its terrors, Winchell soon found out that this new medium conquered all. As a result of his debut on Toast of the Town, ad agency Young & Rubicam approached him to launch his own television show on NBC, The Bigelow Show, which debuted that October. And a short time after that, Macy’s department store began selling little Jerry Mahoney dolls.

After Ed’s second night on the air, New York Times critic Jack Gould wrote a piece reviewing both Berle’s and Sullivan’s shows. Berle, he wrote, was proof that television had arrived. “Register Mr. B. as television’s first real smash!” he effused. “The increasing maturity of Mr. Berle’s art was, perhaps, best demonstrated in the likable accord which he established with the other acts on the bill. His wonderful bit of business with the incomparable Bert Wheeler and his blackface routine with Harry Richman brought back nostalgic memories which through the sheer force of personality of all three acquired a 1948 newness and pace.”

Toast of the Town, however, was a weak competitor in Gould’s view. “In terms of lavishness and expense, it is on a par with Texaco Star Theatre but suffers badly if the comparison is extended to such matters as routining and general professional know-how.… For a variety revue, where a dominant personality is so helpful in tying up the loose ends, the choice of Ed Sullivan as master of ceremonies seems ill-advised.… CBS has all the necessary ingredients for a successful program of variety. Once it appreciates more fully the need for knowing hands to guide the proceedings—both onstage and off—it, too, should have an enjoyable hit.”

Ed, who rarely let a jab go by without jabbing back, immediately fired off a long rebuttal to the Times, which the paper printed the following week:

“Your review of my CBS Toast of the Town television show, in last Sunday’s issue, is in error on so many points that I must challenge it.… “From every survey we have been able to make, the CBS Toast of the Town has the biggest audience in television and the most enthusiastic.… Oscar Hammerstein II, a rather experienced hand in show business, has expressed his delighted amazement at our progress in a completely new medium and specifically praised ‘the professional polish, the pacing of the show, and high entertainment value.’ Eddie Cantor, after seeing the show, on a television set, said that we were so far ahead of any program he’s seen that he was dumbfounded at the potentialities of a medium he had disregarded.…

“Your conclusions are at such variance to the expressions of expert showmen, and so opposed to public reaction, that I feel very strongly you are in error.…

“So much for the overall show. As to your opinion of me as master of ceremonies, I won’t challenge that, because difference of opinion makes horse racing. However, I do feel that when you compare me to Milton Berle, you misunderstand my position on the show. They wanted a working newspaperman, sufficiently versed in show business, to nominate acts that could live up to a Toast of the Town designation. As it is a Sunday show, they wanted a certain measure of dignity and restraint, rather than a vain attempt to work with acrobats, tumblers, etcetera, which Berle does brilliantly.”

Despite his assiduous defense, as a series of reviews echoed Gould’s and Variety’s, CBS began to grow embarrassed by its show host. The pans of Sullivan hampered efforts to find an advertiser, and the program remained unsponsored as the weeks went by. The lack of sponsorship money led to another problem: the talent budget, which the CBS contract stipulated at $375 per show, remained at this token level. Since this wasn’t enough to mount the show, Sullivan and Lewis were chipping in to cover expenses. In effect, they were paying to work for CBS.

Three weeks after the debut, an actors’ union, Associated Actors and Artists of America, launched an inquiry into Toast of the Town. The show paid performers so far below customary compensation that the union threatened to ban its members from appearing. Additionally, the union was concerned that Sullivan was using his column as a club, coercing performers to appear for low pay. As the headlines turned negative, a CBS spokesman disavowed all responsibility, explaining that the network “paid a flat fee to Mr. Sullivan and that he arranged for the appearance of the artists.”

Sullivan agreed to sit down with the union. He defended the show by noting that television performance rates had not yet been set, and saying that he knew of other shows that paid less. “Apparently we’re being made the whipping boy for the whole field,” he said. Ed and Marlo opened their books, which placated union officials about the payment issue; Ed said that if his show were to find a sponsor the rates would increase. He denied using his column to twist the arms of performers, saying that he brought “no pressure, direct, indirect, inferential, or practical,” to persuade entertainers to appear. The meeting seemed to settle the issue. Although the union made noises about establishing a separate rate for columnists-hosts, no action was taken. But the union left its options open, noting that it would advise Sullivan at “a later date” about its final decision.

Ed was, of course, using his column to get performers to appear—that was why CBS hired him—but it was more of a carrot than a stick. He wrote no rash of negative tidbits about entertainers likely to have spurned his show invitations. He did, however, trumpet the success reaped by artists who appeared on Toast of the Town, dangling a tantalizing offer of greater exposure. “Ventriloquist Paul Winchell landed a Columbia Pictures project, Jackie Miles a $1500 television spot because of Toast of the Town clicks!” he wrote in mid July. The following week, “As a result of his Toast of the Town click, Roxy Theatre wants band-poll sensation Illinois Jacquet for the Harvest Moon Show.” (Since Ed headlined this Roxy bill it’s probable that he himself was the reason the theater requested Jacquet.) He also explained in his column, by quoting someone else, why performers needed television exposure regardless of pay. “[MCA talent agency executive] Sonny Werblin defines MCA’s policy on television: ‘We want all our acts to get into television. The fact that there is little money in it at the moment is unimportant. Now is the time for them to learn all about it, and get in on the ground floor.’ ”

Meanwhile, Ed received a ray of sunlight amid the otherwise gray critical response to the show. Variety issued a softer follow-up review of Toast of the Town on July 21, less than a month after its initial critique. The paper may have been influenced by Ed’s highly empathetic eulogy of a recently deceased Variety critic, one of two such lauds he wrote for the reviewer that week. At any rate, the trade publication observed that the show was making progress, and seemed to suggest that Sullivan himself had moved past the sheer terror of his debut. The emcee “kept the event moving smoothly and with a minimum of words. It was his most ingratiating job to date on this series, which seems to be taking on that quickening know-how complexion from week to week. The lighting could still stand improvement.”

The critics, by focusing on Sullivan as host, were critiquing his most visible but least important role on the program. He was the show’s producer, its creator and shaper, the one who molded it into something enjoyed by a mass audience. His talent was as an impresario, not as a show host.

On camera, he stood center stage and ushered acts on and off in a reserved monotone, pointing out celebrities in the crowd, prompting audience applause with his jerky arm movements. The critics were correct in noting he did this with surprising lack of ease. He had been in front of an audience since the early 1930s, yet tapes of the show reveal that the stage was still an alien atmosphere for him in 1948. At moments he smiled or even laughed, but, living up to his nickname Old Stoneface, he kept it to a minimum, as if this were a serious business that required a sober demeanor. In his view, his onstage persona wasn’t what the audience came for; his work was mostly done by the time the cameras clicked on.

A big part of his job was being a talent scout. Within his first year on the air, he introduced Brooklyn-born Jackie Gleason to the television audience—four years before the comic made a major impact on TV with The Jackie Gleason Show. A master of the wordless grimace, Gleason was appearing in New York nightclubs when Ed booked him to perform a monologue about an unfortunate man who was love struck with a jukebox. In this same period, Sam Levenson, a former schoolteacher, launched his long career with a critically lauded Toast of the Town stand-up routine about life in New York City.

More important was taking this talent and mixing it into a concoction that enchanted the living room audience. Throughout 1948 Sullivan was testing his formula, his version of updated vaudeville: highbrow and lowbrow, something funny, something for the kids. The bookings could ever so slightly challenge the audience, but he always included material to soften any edge. In July he booked tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a vaudeville legend who had danced with Shirley Temple in numerous 1930s musicals, to perform with jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, a virtuoso scat singer. As Fitzgerald scatted through what Variety described as “neo-modern jazz vocalistics,” Robinson’s feet flashed in a flurry of heel and toe. To keep the evening from overwhelming the folks at home, Sullivan balanced Fitzgerald-Robinson with lighter material: a novelty singer who warbled about a bearded lady, acrobatic team Toy and Wing, comedian Dick Buckley, and Baltimore city official Elmert Reinhart rendering “Home on the Range.” (Spotlighting common folks was a key part of the Sullivan blueprint.) Ed’s formula was square enough for a mass audience, but rarely bland; he offered the spice of the new—like a Fitzgerald-Robinson jazz-dance duet—then provided cotton candy comforts.

As the show’s producer, he took dictatorial control over every aspect of its production. In contrast to his persona as the reserved and respectful host, as producer he didn’t care who he offended, with the exception of a very few high-profile guests. He brought his formula to the stage with a single-minded intensity, and he was “very much in charge,” recalled several Sullivan performers.

After conceiving of that week’s show and choosing a group of acts that realized his conception, he often dictated the material the artists performed. Comics would have their material cut or reshaped; singers might be assigned a given song (it’s likely that Ella Fitzgerald sang “Easter Parade,” the current chart-topping Judy Garland movie theme, at Ed’s directive). Then he developed the running order down to the minute, coordinating various technical aspects with Marlo Lewis.

On Sunday afternoons he ran the entire show without pause in front of a live studio audience—a full dress rehearsal. (Performers complained about the afternoon audience; it was let in for free and many of its members were Boy Scouts and the elderly, and hence greeted many comics’ acts with polite silence. A new audience was invited in for the evening broadcast, so that response was fresh.) As the show played, Ed stood offstage, simultaneously watching the audience and each performer, making decisions about how to shape the show for broadcast. As he watched, he relied on his long education: the many speakeasy revues he saw in his twenties, the countless Loew’s State vaudeville shows he produced, the innumerable productions he reviewed as a Broadway columnist, even his failed radio and film career. While his awkward stage demeanor made him appear a neophyte, he was a veteran long before his television debut.

After dress rehearsal he went to work. A comic’s or singer’s routine was, again, shortened or changed, as were those of the ventriloquists, the acrobats, the slight-of-hand artists, and the plate spinners—he reshaped even the animal acts, creating havoc with tigers or monkeys who knew their part by rote. And if Ed felt a performer didn’t have the magic that Sunday afternoon, after rehearsal that performer was cut altogether, a common occurrence (Marlo Lewis had the unpleasant job of informing their agents). Everything, in short, had to jibe with his gut instinct of what would reach the home audience.

The producer at work: Sullivan in rehearsal with his original television staff. From left, director John Wray, Sullivan, coproducer Marlo Lewis, and talent coordinator Mark Leddy. The showman attempted to control every aspect of the program. (Globe Photos)

Since his most significant role on the show was producer, Ed could have hired someone else as emcee. It would have saved him myriad slings and arrows from critics and undoubtedly aggravated his ulcer much less. But that wouldn’t have satisfied the core craving that had driven him to this point: his hunger for fame. No matter how stilted he was as the show’s host, center stage was where he wanted to stand. The program was called Toast of the Town, but he imagined a time when it would be called The Ed Sullivan Show.

However, he had learned a painful lesson from his many failed radio shows, a mistake he took care not to repeat on television. In each of his short-lived shows he had been a performer; his chitchat with guests played a central role. But experience had taught him that an audience wouldn’t respond to him as a performer. So on Toast of the Town he walked an awkward middle path. He refused to hire anyone else as emcee—he wanted this high-profile spot for himself. Yet, knowing the show would fail if he put too much of himself onstage, he acted as a transparent host, simply pointing at the talent and getting offstage. He offered a reserved hello, a few comments, then a quick setup: “Let’s hear it for.…”

Critics didn’t accept his withdrawn concept of hosting; it ran counter to the accepted notion of the master of ceremonies as a charismatic performer in his own right. But Ed, though the critics bothered him terribly, wasn’t going to be deterred by them. If placing himself center stage meant he would be thrashed by reviewers on a regular basis, so be it. The spotlight was what he had come for, and he had no plans to leave it.

His decision to be the show’s emcee put a major hurdle in his path. As the show’s first summer wore on, the search for a sponsor bore no fruit. Certainly the cost was modest. Although CBS announced an advertising rate hike effective October 1, it would still cost just $1,000 per episode to sponsor an hour-long television show, up from $700 per hour that summer. Yet even with these rock-bottom rates the sales staff found no takers. Reviews of Sullivan’s onstage persona made advertisers hesitate; his wooden delivery was becoming a running joke among industry observers. Finally, in mid September, the Emerson Radio and Television Corporation agreed to sponsor the show for a year. Emerson’s sponsorship would not increase the show’s $375 weekly talent budget, but it did, in theory, put Sullivan and Lewis on safer footing with the network.

The first broadcast of Toast of the Town for which a tape exists was on November 28, 1948. The tape reveals that Sullivan had found his signature formula for mixing acts, but that his presentation of this formula was still far from ideal. With no budget and only the most rudimentary production facility, this was television at its most primitive.

The show opens with bandleader Ray Bloch’s razzmatazz orchestra music, the curtain rising to reveal the June Taylor dancers—a troupe of six leggy, festively costumed nightclub dancers. They shimmy while singing the show’s jingle in front of a painted backdrop depicting the Manhattan skyline. As they sashay offstage the audience applauds and Ed walks on briskly, looking ruddily handsome, his hair slicked back, wearing an elegant double-breasted jacket with wide lapels and a dark tie.

The showman addresses the studio audience yet never looks into the camera. His manner is upbeat but restrained, and his erect posture has a frozen quality, as if he’s held tightly by an unseen straightjacket. He dedicates the evening’s show to the city of Baltimore—part of Ed’s effort to romance each city in his viewing audience—but throughout the broadcast he mispronounces the city’s name as “Balt-ee-more.” To open the show, he doesn’t list who will appear (in fact he has no celebrity performers), but instead rambles through a stilted introduction:

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, as you all know, in this particular Toast of the Town show for Emerson, this is Balt-ee-more night.” The crowd cheers and he allows himself a smile, but he keeps his hands firmly clasped behind his back. “And Balt-ee-more is feeling mighty happy today; they feel the way Navy felt yesterday in reverse. Navy felt by tying, they won. Balt-ee-more Colts came up here today and knocked off Brooklyn, so let’s have a nice hand from all of the Balt-ee-more crowd.”

The crowd obliges and he urges them on. “C’mon, make some noise!” He gestures with his arms for more applause and flashes a brief smile. “Well, c’mon, let’s hear it! I wanted to see if you could still cheer after that rooting today.… Now we’re going to open up our show tonight, we’re going to take you to the boulevards of Gay Paree. We’re going to meet a little mademoiselle and the big, bad wolf. Raymond, take it away.”

The orchestra jumps into a jazzy horn number as the camera cuts to a male-female dance duo named Olsen and Joy, the woman dressed in a trampy caricature of a French woman, the man dressed as an American sailor. They dance and strut in an elaborate mock courtship, swing dancing, leaping, mugging with big smiles, hand-standing across the stage. They stop in the middle for a comedy routine that plays on his lust for her, then launch into ever more pyrotechnic flips, feet over head, seemingly gravity-free. In their final gesture, the sailor puts a cigarette in his mouth, lights a match, attaches the lit match to his shoe, then lifts his foot back over his head to light the cigarette; he waves his lit cigarette as the duo dances offstage.

Ed urges the audience to keep cheering for the duo, then stows his hands safely in his pockets to introduce the evening’s celebrities in the audience. As he points out actor Jack LaRue, a Humphrey Bogart-style player of tough guys and mobsters, he attempts a momentary gangster dialect that gets a chuckle despite its labored quality. He then introduces Temple Texas, whose sole movie role was 1947’s Kiss of Death, calling her “the prettiest girl in town.” Both performers stand and take a bow to polite applause.

To set up a commercial, all of which are performed live onstage, Ed introduces Ray Morgan, the announcer-actor who voices the Emerson ads, explaining that he’s been trying to get Ray interested in music. The camera cuts to Morgan, sitting at a desk, auditioning a young female singer. To prove her skills, she trills a love song to her Emerson radio. Morgan then dives into a hard sell as the camera cuts to a variety of Emerson radios, then he wraps it up: “Better tone! Better performance! Better value!” as the audience applauds heartily.

Ed takes only a single sentence to introduce the next act, Red and Van Loper, a male-female dance duo who prance through a routine with a mock Indian snake-charmer theme, accompanied by jazzy swing music. They have no set; the pair simply dances in front of the show’s painted backdrop.

As the audience applauds the dancers’ three-minute routine, Ed attempts a joke with a football theme: “When they were doing this here,” he says, mimicking one of the dancer’s moves, “that means Balt-ee-more 21, Buffalo 18.” There’s no time for audience response as the camera cuts to an operatic diva who belts out a Broadway show tune in front of the stage curtain. Suddenly, the curtain opens to reveal the evening’s most elaborate set—a papier-mâché mock-up of an adobe wall. The June Taylor dancers sway in curvy unison through a Spanish-themed number, which the vocalist brings to a high point with a triumphant soprano note and a toothy smile.

While the audience cheers, the show appears to be interrupted by hecklers, who in reality are a husband-and-wife comedy team. They interact with Ed in a vaudeville routine whose vintage was circa 1915:

Ed: How did you get in?

Wife: On my sister’s tickets.

Ed: Where’s your sister?

Wife: Looking for her tickets! (audience laughs)

Ed: I trust your sister’s smarter than you.

Wife: (laughing hysterically) My sister’s dumber than me.

Ed: (correcting her grammar) You mean “dumber than I.”

Wife: She’s dumber than both of us! (audience laughs)

Ed: You’re the one who lives in Washington, D.C.?

Wife: Yeah.

Ed: Do you know where the nation’s capitol is?

Wife: All over Europe! (big audience laugh; the joke is a reference to the Marshall Plan, in which the United States made a huge postwar capital investment to rebuild Europe.)

Wife: (referring to Ed) He’s some dope, I’ll say.

Husband: Why do you call that master of ceremonies a dope?

Wife: Why do you call that dope a master of ceremonies? (audience laughs)

Ed introduces the evening’s act for children, puppeteer Virginia Austin. A matronly woman in her fifties, Austin wheels on a small wagon with two puppets aboard. As she operates her two diminutive characters, she sings the falsetto voice of both male and female puppets; they warble romantically and tap dance to a snappy tune. To demonstrate how easy marionettes are to operate, she works the strings of an oversized puppet, which in turn appears to operate its own smaller puppet. The smaller character then picks up a still smaller hand puppet, creating a three-level marionette act, to great audience delight.

Ed claps largely and exhorts the audience to keep cheering, after which he sets up an Emerson Radio skit. Mom, Dad, sister, and brother, after some comic hijinks, realize they need a radio in every room. Announcer Ray Morgan explains the easiest solution—buy Emerson—then presents the evening’s climactic sales offer. With a flourish, he reveals the top of the Emerson line: a television. It’s an imposing piece of furniture in a mahogany case, with an eighteen-inch speaker, costing $349.50 “plus installation” (a month’s salary for many workers). As the commercial ends the audience claps wholeheartedly.

Ed then introduces audience members Nicholas Joy, a Broadway performer, and—to wild applause—Baltimore Colts player Billy Hildebrand. The mention of the Colts sets up a dance number by the team’s drum majorettes, six lithesome young women in short skirts and knee-high white boots, who twirl batons and march around the stage. They’re joined by six June Taylor dancers, dressed in similarly short skirts, who perform a mock-football number, tossing a pigskin around as they strut and shake. The melding of the twelve dancers creates a blur of flashing female limbs on the small stage, a mélange of high stepping and waving. The group finishes in a tight formation with the Colts’ pennant prominently displayed.

Ed, now appearing almost relaxed, concludes the show by introducing a Baltimore city official who solemnly presents him with a key to the city. Amid applause and cheers, Sullivan thanks viewers—“You’ve been the most wonderful audience in all the world”—and the orchestra breaks into the bouncy Toast of the Town jingle.

Whatever the show’s charms, the critics weren’t seeing them. In December, a piece by John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune seemed to encapsulate the year’s reviews. “One of the small but vexing questions confronting anyone in this area with a television set is: ‘Why is Ed Sullivan on it every Sunday night?’…in all respects it’s a darn hard question, almost a jackpot question, and it seems to baffle Mr. Sullivan as much as anyone else.…

“After a few bars of music, Mr. Sullivan, who is introduced as a nationally syndicated columnist, wanders out onstage, his eyes fixed on the ceiling as if imploring the help of God.…

“One entertainer I know who gets from $1,500 to $2,000 a week in nightclubs was talked into doing his cherished routines—he only has three—on the show for $55. Mr. Sullivan is a persuasive fellow. If he has any other qualifications for the job, they’re not visible on my small screen. Sullivan has been helplessly fascinated by show business for years.… He remains totally innocent of any of the tricks of stage presence, and it seems clear by now that his talents lie elsewhere.”

Sullivan, livid, wrote Crosby an enraged rebuttal. “Public opinion, I’m certain, would agree that I’ve contributed more to television in its embryonic state than you have contributed with your reckless and uninformed backseat driving. You belt away at performers and producers as a means of earning a weekly salary. At least I give them a gracious introduction and a showmanly presentation that enhances their earning power. Your column acquires a tremendous importance. When it’s employed to recommend that a man be thrown out of his job it becomes quite an evil instrument.” And Ed went a step further in private. On a copy of a similar Crosby review a year later, he handwrote a comment: “I’d like to meet this fella some dark night when I’m learning to drive the largest Mack truck made!”

As vehemently as he disagreed with Crosby or any of the reviewers who criticized him or the show, when he was through firing back, Ed often took their words into account. He did this throughout the run of the show, making booking changes or altering the production in response to a critical barb. After critics roasted his wooden stage presence, he attempted to warm up his onstage persona by hiring Patsy Flick, an old Yiddish vaudeville comic, to heckle him. When Ed walked onstage to introduce an act, Flick would shout out “Come on, Solomon, for God’s sake, smile. It makes you look sexy,” or, “Did you look dat vay when you were alive?” Ed did a similar bit with Gertrude Berg, star of the popular television series The Goldbergs. Berg bantered from the audience in a heavy Yiddish accent, calling him Solomon; Ed got laughs by answering in his own attempt at a Yiddish inflection.

The critics, however, were unimpressed, and in truth Ed’s back and forth with hired hecklers didn’t fundamentally alter his stiff stage persona. The parade of negative reviews kept coming, as did the showman’s acerbic letters written in rebuttal. Sylvia pleaded with Ed to simply write the letters and throw them away, but he was too angry for that. Especially blistering was his retort to Harriet Van Home, New York World Telegram & Sun television and radio critic, who wrote, “He got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality; he is the commonest common denominator.” In response, he wrote her an uncharacteristically short missive: “Dear Miss Home. You Bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.”

It was the audience, not the critics, who Sullivan set out to romance, and he succeeded at that in his debut year. As 1948 drew to a close, the Hopper ratings ranked Toast of the Town as television’s third most popular program, ahead of approximately eighty other prime time shows. It was topped only by Berle’s Texaco Theater and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a televised version of the longtime hit radio show. Additionally, a Pulse survey, reporting on local preferences in various cities, placed Toast of the Town as the top-ranked program in New York and Philadelphia. Sullivan touted his success in his column, writing a note to himself, “Don’t get swell-headed over the Hooper television rating, son.” The show, unlike his many attempts at radio, was finding an audience.

And it was doing so on the cheap. At the end of 1948, CBS reported that it had paid Sullivan $53,500 that year; its reported salary for network president Frank Stanton was $109,000. That CBS would pay its fledgling show host about half the compensation of its president was certainly not true. What the network neglected to clarify was that the $53,500 it paid Sullivan had been the year’s total talent budget for Toast of the Town (the $375 a week for performers, plus $1,000 a week for the orchestra, plus miscellaneous fees, for a half year). Sullivan and his partner Marlo Lewis, after expenses, worked for CBS for free that year.

Although Toast of the Town enjoyed healthy ratings, the critical fusillade directed at Sullivan became a problem. If NBC could hire the multitalented Milton Berle, why was CBS presenting this frozen-faced newspaperman who bumbled through his brief introductions? CBS knew the answer—Sullivan was delivering a ratings triumph at almost no cost—but the program’s sole sponsor, Emerson Radio, saw it differently. Company executives felt embarrassed to be associated with an emcee who generated such critical vitriol.

In February 1949 Marlo Lewis got a call from Ben Abrams, Emerson’s president; Lewis’ ad agency handled the account. “Frankly Marlo—Sullivan stinks! Even from here, and holding my nose. He stinks!” Emerson was canceling its sponsorship, effective immediately. When Lewis reminded him he had agreed to a long-term commitment—the agreement had been oral, not written—Abrams retorted that CBS had taken advantage of Emerson by aligning his company with a show hosted by an amateur. The network made a tentative attempt to enforce the agreement, but to no avail. Toast of the Town had lost its sponsor.

Sylvia heard the news before Ed. She was home by herself the day the call came. Assuming that Emerson’s cancellation portended the show’s cancellation, the call was a major blow. “You can’t imagine how sick I was,” she said. For Ed, the loss of sponsorship called to mind his radio programs, none of which survived past nine months. Now his luck with television, with his show at the nine-month point, appeared all too familiar. He fell into a pitch-black mood. Of that evening, Sylvia recalled: “We were out having dinner, and some fans came over to compliment the program. We both felt so empty we just sat there with sinking hearts.”

CBS was flummoxed. Toast of the Town had attracted an audience, but it had been a hard sell to advertisers, and was now looking like a money loser. The network felt pressed to rectify that. With the search for a sponsor now urgent, the word was put out, quietly, that CBS was soliciting advertisers for the show “with or without Ed Sullivan.” The network had specifically kept Sullivan’s name off the show for this possibility; according to his contract he could be replaced at any point.

When Ed heard about the “with or without Sullivan” offer, he erupted into a rage. He had produced a ratings win for the network while subsidizing the cost himself, and now they were about to jettison him? His daughter Betty recalled his response to this news as “making him more of a fighter,” and indeed he sprang into full battle mode. He stormed the halls of CBS, entering the office of network president Frank Stanton, voice at full volume, demanding to know what was going on. Stanton and network chairman Bill Paley reassured him, claiming they hadn’t agreed to sell the show without him. The offer, they said, had come only from one executive, Jack Van Volkenburg. The “with or without” proffer was rescinded and Sullivan was given an apology. Nonetheless, CBS retained the right to replace him at any time.

The show’s high ratings meant it didn’t have to wait long to find a new sponsor—and a far more prestigious one. Benson Ford, grandson of Henry Ford, enjoyed Toast of the Town immensely. Soon after Emerson Radio’s cancellation, the Ford Motor Company’s ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, contacted CBS. Ford agreed to sponsor the show for thirteen weeks beginning March 27. For Ed the news was profound validation; the show had attracted one of the country’s largest corporations. And, in addition to promoting its Lincoln Mercury line on the program, Ford would tout Toast of the Town in all its nationwide print advertising for the automobile line—reminding readers to tune in Sunday night at 8 P.M.

If that alone wasn’t manna from Heaven, Ford was throwing its corporate weight behind not just the show but, remarkably, Sullivan himself. Due to Benson Ford’s enthusiasm for Ed, Kenyon & Eckhardt developed plans to make him the spokesperson for Lincoln Mercury. Ford would pay him $25,000 per year to travel across the country, city by city, attending community events and giving speeches, promoting the automobile line. When he wasn’t on press junkets he would hold press conferences by phone with groups of editors. In short, he was to be the face of Lincoln Mercury. He would become so associated with the boxy sedans that buyers called him about problems and concerns they had with their new Lincoln Mercurys.

(Over the next two years he would log so many miles for Ford that in February 1952 he wrote an exhausted letter to a Lincoln Mercury executive, claiming his physician had forbidden him to keep traveling: “As a result of this session with the doctor, who long has warned me against what he terms ‘idiocy,’ I have come to this firm conclusion—that a weekly TV show and a five-times-a-week column are as much as I can handle well. I do not want to be a promotion man in the field because it takes too damn much out of me, completely disrupts my home life, and certainly reduces the time I should devote to a big league TV show.” Ford agreed to a lighter schedule.)

Ford’s sponsorship prompted CBS to increase Toast of the Town’s talent budget to $2,000 per episode—still just a fraction of Milton Berle’s budget but a quantum leap from $375. Marlo and Ed discussed how to spend the money, in particular, what share they themselves should take. Ed, according to Marlo, argued that all of it should be spent on the show. “My problem is that I can’t keep squeezing the talent. We’ve got to pay them more.… I hate to say this, but you and I will still have to wait before we can take anything for ourselves.” Lewis agreed. Later that year, the Ford sponsorship allowed Sullivan and Lewis to start taking home modest paychecks.

In addition to the vote of confidence from Ford, Ed received validation from an unusual source in this period. Sometime in late 1949 or early 1950, he took a rare trip home to Port Chester. All of his siblings had remained there; his mother had died in 1929 and his father was now eighty-nine. His older sister Helen, who worked as a factory foreman, had become the family conduit to Ed. When someone needed something, usually financial help, the request was funneled through Helen to Ed. His salary as a Daily News columnist and his success as a vaudeville producer made him the affluent sibling.

He may have made the trip home because he knew his father was dying, for Peter was seriously ill and would die in April 1950. This was likely the last time Ed saw his father, from whom he had remained estranged. Even at age eighty-nine, Peter had never once met Ed’s daughter Betty, who was now nineteen years old.

Television had made it into the Sullivan home in Port Chester, and Ed’s father, with great mental confusion, mentioned that he had seen Ed’s show. “Ed, you were in that little box there!” he exclaimed. “How did you get in there?” He could not, even after considerable explanation, understand how his son’s image had appeared in his living room.

By the late 1940s, Ed’s Daily News column traveled far afield from its roots as a gossip chronicle. Nearly in his twentieth year of writing five columns a week, he turned Little Old New York into a stream of consciousness compendium of his opinions and observations. Anything could now be commented upon, from the low price of whale steaks in Vancouver—good for housewives, he observed—to the fact that marijuana was sold openly on Seventh Avenue. He explained the code used by tugboats sailing off Manhattan (“one long blast is ‘right your rudder’ ”) and covered the glory days of Yankee demigod Joe DiMaggio. As always, his blind items took a darker turn; he included rumor of an unnamed producer who paid $5,000 to hush up a morals charge. Ed even dispensed advice to the underworld: “Tip to mobs: don’t try to heist the shipment on the West Side docks. You’ve got to get hurt.” Broadway and Hollywood remained leading players, as he reported that A Streetcar Named Desire was one of the few plays with a busy box office, and he whispered updates like “the Humphrey Bogart stork checks in January” and “Before she filed [for divorce], Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan had a friendly hour’s confab at Warner’s.”

He gave ample coverage to the funeral for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the storied black tap dancer who died in November 1949. Robinson and Sullivan had had a long friendship, and the dancer was one of the first performers Ed booked on his television show. The funeral for Robinson, a larger-than-life folk hero in New York City before earning Hollywood fame, was attended by scores of public figures, including Mayor O’Dwyer, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, and Ethel Merman. According to The New York Times, approximately five hundred thousand people lined the streets as the flag-draped hearse drove slowly from the church service in Harlem to Times Square to the cemetery in Brooklyn. Robinson had made a small fortune as a performer, yet he died destitute. The pastor who eulogized him explained that he had but two vices, “ice cream and gambling.” Ed, along with composer Noble Sissle (his partner in the Broadway show Harlem Cavalcade), took charge of the funeral arrangements, partially funding it and soliciting contributions for the rest. Adam Clayton Powell, New York’s pioneering black Congressman, thanked Sullivan in his eulogy to Robinson, and Ed also delivered a eulogy at the service.

Aside from show business events like Robinson’s funeral, or Broadway-Hollywood news, Ed’s column now most often spotlighted politics. At times he covered the intersection of politics and show business, as when he reported in the summer of 1948 that Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante donated large sums to the new state of Israel, a favorite cause of Ed’s. But more often now he put aside show business to write about politics itself. He analyzed the 1948 Dewey-Truman presidential race at length, clearly leaning toward the Republican Dewey, a shift from when the young columnist was a cheerleader for Franklin Roosevelt. Truman, he observed, appeared “grayer and plumper,” and seemed “pretty grim over the coldblooded disinterest in his own party.” Indeed, Truman faced an all-but-certain loss in the fall election. Which would be good for the country, Ed opined. “Can you imagine the cleanup job J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI will do if former DA Tom Dewey gets in? Truman group has handcuffed Hoover, while the henchmen loaded the boodle.”

The political development that most concerned Ed was the rise of the Soviet Union. He dissected the internal power struggles of the U.S.S.R. down to the minutiae: “The Russian conflict is between Stalin’s group … versus forty-nine-year-old Andrei Zhdanov and Zhukov’s Red army officer clique, arch foes of U.S. and England … They tell me that even in the Russian embassies in this country, the current bitter communist rift has split apart Russians, with each spying on the other.” As the Cold War settled in, he warned constantly of the threat Russia posed to the United States. He supported those who called for increased defensive measures, as he wrote in July 1948: “GOP leaders, burning at the call for a special session of Congress, first will ask President Truman why the Air Force hasn’t a single assembled atom bomb? It would be two weeks for one to be assembled, if Russia pulled a Pearl Harbor in Europe.”

Ed reported what he saw as the growing influence of communist subversives in the United States. “Commies in this area bolder now that all books of twelve Commie leaders destroyed,” he wrote shortly after his show debuted. A few weeks later, “Commies in this area have labored overtime, through the years, to bag [boxer] Joe Louis. At one big political rally in Harlem, the Commie speaker suddenly pointed to Louis and screamed: ‘Even the heavyweight champion of the world isn’t permitted to play golf at white clubs. Isn’t that so, Joe?’ … Louis rose to his feet and said, ‘No, you’re wrong again. I play golf with Bob Hope, Hal LeRoy, Lou Clayton, Ed Sullivan, Bing Crosby, and I play at the top clubs in the country’ … Only time on record that golf flogged communism … Have you noticed the sudden silence of local Commies? Not a pink peep out of them for weeks.”

In late 1949, the anticommunist fervor Ed supported came into conflict with his role as a television producer. He booked Paul Draper, a dancer known as “The Aristocrat of Tap” for his ability to adapt his flashing feet to any genre, from samba to classical. Scheduled for January 1950, the Draper booking created controversy almost as soon as it was announced.

Mrs. Hester McCullough, a Connecticut housewife and anticommunist crusader, had declared that Draper and harmonica player Larry Adler were communist sympathizers. It appears her charge was based on nothing more substantial than Draper and Adler’s high-profile support of third-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the 1948 nominee of the Progressive Party. (Wallace, a former vice president under Roosevelt, was a constant target of red-baiters in the late 1940s due to his left-of-center beliefs.) Prior to a 1949 performance by Draper and Adler in Greenwich, Connecticut, McCullough had launched a letter-writing campaign, aided by Hearst columnist Igor Cassini, who wrote as “Cholly Knickerbocker.” With Knickerbocker’s support, she demanded the concert be canceled, asserting that performers with communist sympathies were traitors. Draper and Adler denied her charges, issuing a statement picked up by the Associated Press that they were not and never had been communist sympathizers, and that their allegiance stood solely with the United States. The two performers filed suit against McCullough and played their concert as planned, which went well.

That Sullivan decided to book Draper after this much controversy was a clear risk. It’s probable that he knew Draper had lost nightclub bookings after his support of Wallace’s campaign—which Ed himself had vehemently opposed. Yet Ed knew Draper and had worked with him, booking him on numerous occasions for his local variety shows, and Draper and Adler played many USO shows during the war. Ed knew the dancer well enough to know that McCullough’s claims were groundless. And Draper was a perfect performer for the modestly funded Toast of the Town: his tap brilliance played well on television, yet he wasn’t well-known enough to command a large paycheck. At any rate, it appeared that Draper had successfully stood up to McCullough, having filed suit against her and performed as planned. Furthermore, any action by a Hearst columnist (a group that included Winchell) was likely to produce an equal and opposite reaction by Ed.

Soon after Draper’s Toast of the Town appearance was announced, a full assault began. Cholly Knickerbocker, now aided by conservative Hearst columnists Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky, demanded that Ford Motor Company cancel the appearance. Ford, its ad agency Kenyon & Eckhardt, and Ed circled the wagons, holding tense meetings about how to handle the issue. One sticky problem: Draper had filed suit against McCullough; if Ford canceled Draper’s television appearance, would they themselves be faced with legal action?

The decision was made to go ahead with the Draper booking, but Ed dressed it up beyond reproach. He directed the dancer to perform to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and, right after Draper’s performance, the camera cut to Benson Ford in the audience, no more wholesome representative of mainstream America, clapping with gusto. But the other side was not to be appeased. Hearst’s New York Journal-American decried the show with banner headlines, and the Hearst columnists led a letter-writing campaign that sent nearly thirteen hundred angry letters to Ford. Some were duplicates, with large numbers coming from the same post office, but the meaning was clear: Ford had stepped into a public relations quagmire. Worried meetings were again convened between Ford, its agency, and Sullivan, after which Ed wrote a letter, supposedly to the head of Kenyon & Eckhardt, but in reality to be distributed as a press release:

“I am deeply distressed to find out that some people were distressed by the appearance … of a performer whose political beliefs are a matter of controversy … You know how bitterly opposed I am to communism and all it stands for … If anybody has taken offense, it is the last thing I wanted or anticipated, and I am sorry … Tell everybody to tune in again next Sunday night, and if I can get a plug in, it will be a great show—better than ever.”

It was a strategic retreat—after the battle was done—but Ed had, in essence, learned his lesson. Booking a performer with even an imagined shadow over his credentials was profoundly hazardous. Never again would he do so. The show and its success were primary; nothing would ever challenge that as his guiding precept. While he had been a bellicose Cold Warrior before the Draper incident, he now redoubled his efforts. Soon after the controversial booking, he let it be known that he checked each show’s lineup with Theodore Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent and now coeditor of Counterattack, which billed itself as “a newsletter of facts on communism.” If Sullivan thought a musician or comic might be considered a communist sympathizer, he invited Kirkpatrick, a self-appointed expert on such matters, to meet with the performer in Ed’s suite at the Delmonico. Ed made it clear that Toast of the Townwould be above even the suggestion of subversive taint. “Kirkpatrick has sat in my living room on several occasions and listened attentively to performers eager to secure a certification of loyalty,” he wrote in June 1950. “On some occasions, after interviewing them, he has given them the green light; on other occasions, he has told them ‘Veterans’ organizations will insist on further proof.’ ”

Those evenings at the Delmonico reflected a larger national mood. In February 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a little known junior senator from Wisconsin, made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in which he alleged there were communists in the U.S. State Department. He had a list, he said, of two hundred five State Department personnel who were members of the Communist Party; furthermore, he claimed they continued to actively shape U.S. foreign policy. That the list was never actually produced was beside the point. McCarthy had placed a seed in fertile soil. It was a season of fear, and, given world events, not without reason. Communists had taken control of mainland China a year earlier, and the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb six months earlier. Just one month before McCarthy’s speech, Alger Hiss, a low-ranking State Department employee, was convicted of perjury in a case involving his alleged membership in the Communist Party. Hiss continued to maintain his innocence, but that, too, was immaterial. His highly publicized congressional hearings—the first televised hearings, in 1948—suggested that something subversive and pervasive lurked just beyond sight.

Amid it all, in June 1950, Ed announced in his column that a “bombshell” was on its way, a publication to be distributed to all broadcast networks, sponsors, and ad agencies. Kirkpatrick had told Sullivan, and Ed, by giving advance warning in his column, let readers know he was on the inside track. The two-hundred-fifteen-page book lived up to its billing. Published by Counterattack and entitled Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, the publication warned of a Soviet effort to infiltrate American culture using radio and television. It listed one-hundred fifty-one individuals with “citations” for communist sympathies. The list, shockingly, contained some of the leading lights of stage and screen: Zero Mostel, a comic actor whom Ed worked with on numerous benefits for United Jewish Relief; actor John Garfield, a Sullivan houseguest in Hollywood; playwright Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman was a 1949 Broadway hit; composer Aaron Copland, whose paean to homespun Americana, Appalachian Spring, debuted in 1944; and Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson, whose florid portrayals of mobsters had inspired Ed’s own Big Town Czar. Adding credence to the hysteria trumpeted by Red Channels, within a week of its release communist forces from North Korea invaded South Korea.

That the luminaries listed in Red Channels were part of a communist conspiracy was an absurd assertion; the most common denominator among the group was support for the New Deal. Even one of its publishers conceded that some performers shouldn’t have been listed. Regardless, the list was read and in many cases treated as gospel by broadcasting executives. Though rarely spoken of in public, the list became a powerful force behind the scenes. And while the “transgressions” of those listed were usually imaginary or close to it, they had no redress once they were unemployed. One of Red Channels’ chief backers was Laurence Johnson, a supermarket executive in Syracuse, New York, whose association with the publication gave him unquestioned power across the television and advertising industries. “If he put the word out on you, you were through,” recalled Mike Dann, who then worked in NBC’s programming department. Dann also remembered the wholehearted enthusiasm that Ed brought to his support of Red Channels. As he understood it, Ed “wasn’t a reactionary, he was square—he was very square.”

The irony of Ed’s involvement with Counterattack is that he himself had written for a Socialist newspaper in his twenties. The Leader, for which he was sports editor and a columnist, regularly listed all the communist cell meetings in the New York area, and espoused kinship between American and Russian workers; these groups were all part of the international proletariat, as the Leader saw it. (One of the government raiders who ransacked The Leader’s offices in 1919 was a young agent who then went by the name of John Edgar Hoover.) Certainly his writing had been largely apolitical, but then many blacklisted performers had done nothing more serious. Yet Ed’s youthful indiscretion went overlooked—helped, no doubt, by his silence on the topic. In interviews, he always glossed over this period, and in a 1956 article he wrote for Collier’s magazine detailing his early newspaper career, he pointedly omitted The Leader.

At any rate, the host of Toast of the Town had now thrown himself into the pitched battle to protect America from the communist threat, real and perceived, which was joined by virtually all major American institutions. In December 1950, Ed was a member of an expert panel enlisted to judge an essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The contestants wrote on the topic “What Strategy Should the V.F.W Recommend to Our Government in Combating the Communist Threat to America?” The other judges on the panel included newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Counterattack publisher Theodore Kirkpatrick, Westbrook Pegler—the columnist whom Ed defied in booking Paul Draper—and Julius Ochs Adler, an executive with The New York Times.

Despite the depth of his involvement, Ed maintained a level of critical judgment about some of the actions taken in the name of anticommunist fervor. In 1952, the New York Post launched a full-scale assault against Walter Winchell, running a series of articles attacking him from every angle; naturally they enlisted Ed for commentary. In the Post series, Ed remarked, “Long before Senator McCarthy came into the character-assassination racket, there was a guy by the name of Walter Winchell.” The roundhouse punch against Winchell aside, the public denunciation of McCarthy was unusual for someone in Ed’s position. Certainly the description was accurate—reckless character assassination was McCarthy’s forte—but in 1952, the Republican senator was still very much a force to be reckoned with.

Even Dwight Eisenhower, then a popular war hero running a heavily favored campaign as the Republican presidential nominee, opted to cut a McCarthy rebuke from one of his speeches. Eisenhower’s advisors convinced him to remain mute on the subject, “fearing McCarthy’s retaliation against their candidate,” according to historian David Halberstam. That Sullivan, producing a television program aimed at a mass audience, supported by a public relations—sensitive corporate sponsor, would so openly declaim McCarthy was just short of foolhardy. It was also typical of the contradictions that ran throughout his political attitudes. He cooperated with Counterattack but called McCarthy a character assassin; he was an avid blacklister but professed to voting for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, who stood against the practice. Although he could pander, by telling Paul Draper to dance to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” his swipe at McCarthy demonstrated he remained a pugilist at heart.

And that quality would be an essential one in Sullivan’s television career—especially in the early 1950s. Not long after launching his show, his pugilistic spirit would face its greatest test yet.